Spring 1986

On the Concept of Person

Hans Urs von Balthasar

"The word 'person' receives its special dignity in history when it is illuminated by the unique theological meaning."

Few words have as many layers of meaning as person. On the surface it means just any human being, any countable individual. Its deeper senses, however, point to the individual's uniqueness which cannot be interchnaged and therefore cannot be counted. The complexity of the word's history, almost impossible to unravel, corresponds to this multiplicity of meanings, and almost from the beginning this history reflects the word's various aspects of meaning that cannot be synthesized.

And yet there seems to be something like a string guiding us through this maselike garden—Ariadne's red string in the Labyrinth—and we want to pick it up from the very beginning in order to find our way. Jacques Maritain, and not he alone, always held to the principle, "The individual exists for the society, but the society exists for the person." Herein lies implicit a first decision: if one distinguishes between individual and person (and we should for the sake of clarity), then a special dignity is ascribed to the person, which the individual as such does not possess. We see this in the animal kingdom where there are many individuals but no persons. Carrying the distinction over to the realm of human beings, we will speak in the same sense of "individuals" when primarily concerned with the identity of human nature, to which, of course, a certain dignity cannot be denied insofar as all human beings are spiritual subjects. We will speak of a "person," however, when considering the uniqueness, the incomparability and therefore irreplaceability of the individual. For now we want to leave aside the consideration of primitive cultures, in which it might be that only a single individual or a few "persons" received this quality of incomparability (e.g., the tribal chief, the king or the pharoah) or in which it might be that the "personal" character was collectively possessed by the community, the tribe, or the clan of which the individual had to become a member in order to share in its personality; for otherwise, separated from the tribe, he was lost. We want rather to begin at the point in mankind's development when the human being himself stands in the tension between the individual and the person—a tension, as one sees very easily, that cannot be resolved, for no one can be a person except on the basis of individuality. Yet the word individuality, which means the quality of not being broken into parts, always includes an element of singularity that, at least potentially, contains something of personality.


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